I have the palate of an 11-year-old with a badly burned tongue, so I don't get to write many food reviews. Once, I wrote about a really good sandwich. Another time, I reviewed a spicy tea. Neither of them required adjectives besides "good" or "spicy." I can't differentiate among levels of al dente, and I have never noted the notes in anything. This wine has vanilla and black cherry in it? It tastes like vinegar to me.
What I can't taste, I let others do for me. I've read plenty of reviews describing food so vividly that I'm left thinking, "Wow. I didn't even know words could do that." But in last week's review, Andrew Marton used unctuous to describe both crab meat and strawberry sauce. He meant it as a compliment (and depending on definition, it might even be accurate), but the word deters me. Even the sound of "unctuous" is displeasing. It forces up phlegm.
Worst food words is a popular topic in forums and food blogs. A few weeks ago, Chowhound users created a thorough list of bad or abused food words. Offenders included "mouth-feel" (I know mouth-feel is supposed to refer to something beyond texture, but the word makes me feel like something scratchy is stuck to the roof of my mouth) and home-made (a dubious describer), sinful (a senseless word. Why should I repent for my unctuous dessert?) and toothsome (I know what it means, but I can't help the image of a sauce full of teeth.) Maybe my definitions are to blame for the unappetizing food images, but there seem to be plenty of people who agree with me.
Last year, LA Weekly's Amy Scattergood came up with a two-part list calling out verbal violations of vittles (and come on, who doesn't like alliteration?) such as bounty, smack down, decadent and delicious. Readers especially hate delicious, a word so broad and so widely abused that it has lost its meaning.
I understand the struggle. How many ways can one praise a crab cake before stumbling into the abstract? When does talking about food cease being about food, and start being about how far one can stretch their vocabulary? When is food writing really just an exercise in giving each synonym for "delicious" equal representation?
Beyond adjectives and verbs, some food names stumble coming out of the gate, like medallion, floss, fish ball and anything that comes in a brick. I feel like if we can turn glands and pancreases into something as nice-sounding as sweetbreads, everything else can try a little harder. We should just take pictures and post slide shows of food porn, if that term didn't disgust Scattergood and other readers so much.
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Sticking within the confines of language, what can food writers do to keep reviews fresh and avoid tipping off readers' sensitive imaginations and appetites (I hate when anything is "threaded" or "laced" with anything, or when things are "snarled," because I feel like it's a choking hazard)? For me, a first step would be to avoid meaningless fillers, like "fresh" or "perfectly cooked." These are things diners expect, and a restaurant shouldn't be praised for doing what they're supposed to do.
Next, balance creativity and colorful language. Step outside of delicious and tasty (forget you even know the word yummy), but stop before you become a freshman poetry student.
What are some food words that cause you to cringe and stop reading? Or, alternatively, do you have favorite food writers who expertly describe their meals? Are there words that are so enticing and exact that they inspire you to try the dish yourself?